A group of people gathered in 1948 to form a conservative synagogue. It took them until 1962, when they moved into this building, to find a permanent home. Originally built in the 1860s as the First German Baptist Church and then taken over by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1926, it still has two of the onion-shaped domes from years ago standing high above.
Founded in 1786 with a grant from Robert Murray, a wealthy merchant, and educating New York’s Quaker population at this 16th Street location since 1860, the Friends Seminary is the oldest co-ed K-12 school in New York City. The institution holds true to the Quaker principles of diversity, inclusion, and peace, seeking to shape well-rounded and thoughtful scholars, artists, and athletes through their curriculum.
There is a plaque here that marks the residence of English-born poet, Wystan Hugh Auden, an East Villager from 1953 to 1972, a year before he died. Take a dip into a line from his poem "As I Walked Out One Evening"... that struck us as rather fitting for our own endeavor... As I walked out one evening, Walking down Bristol Street, The crowds upon the pavement Were fields of harvest wheat. Though best known for this elegant and tragic meditation on the nature of time, he published more than 400 poems during his lifetime, and also wrote many essays and reviews. Interestingly, the basement of the building where he lived once housed Russian left-wing newspaper Novy Mir, where Leon Trotsky spent time working in the years leading up to the Russian Revolution.
Built and consecrated in 1799, St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery is Manhattan’s oldest site of continuous worship and the second oldest church building. It inspired the naming of nearby St. Mark’s Place and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, however, it might be better known as a community gathering place, thanks to the many plays, dances, poetry readings, avant-garde films and political events that have been taking place on the premises for decades. St. Mark’s Church also has a significant burial ground, housing the vault of Peter Stuyvesant along with other prominent founders of New York City. When visiting the Minthorne House on 1st Street, we learned that several members of the Minthorne family were also buried here.
It would be easy to walk right past the East End Temple. From the street, it does not look how one might expect an active synagogue to appear. It is part of a row house designed by the renowned Beaux-Arts architect Richard Morris Hunt for Sidney Webster, a governor of New York, United States senator, and Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of State. Its exterior is impeccably well-maintained, and has been designated a New York Historic Landmark. It is the splendid interior, however, on which the congregation has truly left its stamp. East End Temple was founded as Congregation El Emet (which means “God of Truth” in Hebrew), a name they still use, in 1948. Its founders were World War II veterans living nearby in Stuyvesant Town. For the first part of its existence, the congregation met in a building at 23rd Street and Second Avenue. In 2004, the congregation moved into its current building following a complete architectural overhaul that involved refurbishing and restoring the Helen Spring Library. Original elements from the house’s use as a private residence are plainly visible, and the construction of a brand-new sanctuary received the 2005 American Institute of Architects Honor Award in the category of outstanding interiors. Incidentally, Richard Morris Hunt was a founding member of that very organization. Lauren Weinberger, a longtime congregant of East End Temple, told me that the congregation had originally planned to build and move into their new sanctuary earlier than 2004. One night in 2001, they had a marathon meeting in which they finalized plans for the new space and hammered out every last detail. That night was September 10. Needless to say, contractors, city permits, and most importantly, emotional stamina and confidence were difficult to come by directly following 9/11. In a sense, the now-completed sanctuary serves as a monument to the refusal of New Yorkers to put their communal and spiritual lives on indefinite hiatus. The sanctuary, flooded with light from a hidden skylight, appears larger than its actual physical size. Nearly every element of its design is meant to evoke Israel and the Tabernacle. The wall behind the bimah - the raised platform at the front of the sanctuary - is made of Jerusalem stone, with eighteen bronze prayer strips that resemble the paper prayer strips placed by worshipers in the Western Wall. The lectern is made of wood similar to the acacia (now endangered) used in the Biblical construction of the Tabernacle, with hand-holds built into the front to represent "portable nature. " Features such as the L-shaped pew arrangement and low bimah make for a community-oriented synagogue experience. The design of the sanctuary was intended to be “non-hierarchical, ” Lauren explained. Even the Ner Tamid - the lantern holding the ceremonial eternal light of God - is hung from a long beam extending from the center of the sanctuary, making it seem more accessible. For me, however, the most striking feature of the sanctuary’s design is the ark doorway made from cast bronze. After hearing of a Buddhist tradition in which prayers are burnt in the crucible where a Temple bell is cast, the congregation decided to adapt the custom for their own Jewish practice. When casting the ark doors, congregants’ prayers were thrown into the crucible and are now part of the doors’ very substance. As for the design of the bronze itself, the doors are meant to feel “tactile, ” with linen-like textures and a tree motif representing the Torah, often referred to as the “Tree of Life” in Jewish practice. The sanctuary reflects the priorities of the congregation it houses. “We pride ourselves on being inclusive and welcoming as a community, ” Lauren said proudly. East End Temple is home to a thriving religious school, members of New York’s LGBT community, and to this day, some of the original founders of Congregation El Emet. Some subsets of the congregation even have their own nicknames, like BEET: The Boomers of East End Temple (“a healthy empty-nesters community, ” as Lauren describes it). Special events such as summer services in Stuyvesant Square and monthly Simchat Shabbat services, which feature music, comedy, and guest speakers draw healthy numbers of participants. The congregation is active in community organizations like Metro IAF-NY, and enjoys a genial relationship with nearby St. George’s Episcopal Church and Friends Seminary. “The best thing you can do is be a place people want to be at, ” Lauren said of her synagogue. “It’s been a wonderful space. ”
Originally known as the Memorial Chapel of St. Mark’s Parish, this impressive orange brick building was designed by James Renwick Jr. (also known for St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Grace Church, also on 10th Street) and constructed in 1882-1883. It was not until 1937, when the Orthodox Christian congregation purchased the building, that it became St. Nicholas.
Beneath the Spanish Benevolent Society lies La Nacional, one of Manhattan’s most authentic Spanish restaurants and the most easily accessible part of the society. Just by walking down the steps into the dimly lit basement lounge, we felt the bustle of 14th street quickly recede and we were transported across the ocean. La Nacional has the same relaxed, no frills atmosphere as most tapas bars in Spain. We gazed at the old photographs from the society’s earlier years on the walls and then had the option of sipping a drink at the bar, sampling some classic simple Spanish tapas such as tortilla de patatas, croquetas or chorizo, or dining on a full meal of paella. Perhaps the most authentic option, though, was to simply have a seat by the television to watch the fútbol game - it is always on. For visitors from Spain who want a taste of home, those of us pining for the Spanish travels of our past, or New Yorkers simply curious about a new culture, La Nacional is the place to go.